American Enterprise Online
July 28, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd

This isn’t the first election on which terror will cast its shadow: Twenty-four years ago today, the terrorist regime in Iran was holding 52 American hostages. In a final indignity to President Carter, they wouldn’t be released until after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Some members of the Carter administration accused Reagan’s campaign of secretly negotiating with Tehran to hold the hostages in an effort to sway the US elections. House and Senate committees (controlled by Democrats) later dismissed the outrages charges, but the notion of politically influential men using their position or power to impact elections lived on. Thus was born the October Surprise. 

October Surprise conspiracies don’t always happen in October; some aren’t even much of a surprise; and most deserve to be dismissed. However, there is some truth to the idea that political powerbrokers time events around elections in order to achieve maximum political benefit. For example, by signing welfare reform into law (after vetoing it twice), President Clinton threw an August Surprise in 1996, and solidified his place in the political center. Lawrence Walsh brought an indictment against Caspar Weinberger four days before the 1992 election. The election-eve revelations that George W. Bush had a DWI offense a quarter-century ago erased Bush’s late lead over Al Gore. In response to well-timed leaks about Sandy Berger’s Sockgate fiasco, Democrats have, in effect, accused the Bush administration of a July Surprise.  

Of course, if you ask conspiracy theorists and political junkies, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of October Surprises that Bush could hatch: On the political front, rumors have swirled about the possibility that Bush would jettison Vice President Dick Cheney or somehow find a place for Rudolph Giuliani in the Cabinet.   

But more likely possibilities are found overseas. Uncovering stocks of WMDs in Iraq would be a pleasant surprise for the administration, and it doesn’t take Tom Clancy to construct a scenario for how this might happen:  

Former US weapons inspector David Kay concluded that “a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMD program.” Gen. James Clapper, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, notes that prewar satellite surveillance tracked the movement of large amounts of material into Syria, leading him to conclude “unquestionably” that the Iraqi regime “decided the best thing to do was to dispose, destroy and disperse.”[1]  

In Endgame, Generals Thomas McInerny and Paul Vallely provide great detail on a possible Iraq-to-Syria WMD transfer, asserting that Syria buried Saddam’s arsenal in tunnel complexes near al Baida, at the Tai Snan air force base, in a border city called Sjinsjam and perhaps in the Bekaa Valley.  

Nine of Saddam’s foremost WMD scientists have been killed in postwar Iraq. All had been interviewed by the Coalition’s WMD fact-finding group, as the Weekly Standard has reported.[2] This past spring, sarin and mustard shells began springing up among conventional caches. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reported in June that Polish troops happened across 16 warheads that contained sarin and mustard gas.  

“It’s not hard to hide things in a country the size of California,” according to Rumsfeld. But he demurs about Syria: “There have been a lot of intelligence speculation and rumors and chatter about the fact that Saddam Hussein may have placed some of his weapons of mass destruction in Syria prior to the start of the war. Until that can be validated and proved, you’ll find people in the administration not talking about it.”[3] 

Until that can be validated? Interesting word choice from a man who chooses his words carefully. 

Of course, the Mother of All October Surprises would be the capture of Osama bin Laden. In fact, Madeleine Albright wondered aloud last December whether the “Bush administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election.” It’s laughable how conspiracy theorists can view Bush as simultaneously incompetent and ingenious.

* * * 

But the October Surprises I worry about are no laughing matter—they’re nightmares: 

Hundreds of US Special Forces are being deployed to protect the US Olympic team from a Munich-style massacre at the Athens Games. Thousands more NATO troops are on standby outside the country, just in case, in the indelicate words of Greek Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis, “a World War III” scenario unfolds. 

Speaking of World War III, the enemy could decapitate the nascent governments in Afghanistan or Iraq, and draw US forces into even more chaos—or he could assassinate Pervez Musharraf, seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and draw the entire world into chaos.  

The enemy has already shown how easy it is to disable Iraq’s oil pipelines, as well as the vulnerabilities of Saudi Arabia. Putting the two together by attacking the Saudi oil complex at Ras Tanura or bombing some unguarded strand of pipeline could trigger a global economic meltdown. 

Perhaps even worse, the enemy could surprise us at home:

Repeating Madrid

Police and security officials are bracing for attacks in New York and Boston aimed at the Republican and Democratic conventions.  

According to the New York Times, US intelligence sources confirm that al-Qaeda terrorists are planning attacks to “inflict catastrophic effects” before the election. And why wouldn’t they? After the 3/11 terror attacks in Madrid, the Spanish electorate ousted the hawkish ruling party in favor of an anti-war party committed to yanking Spanish forces out of Iraq. As Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute laments, “the most important lesson to be learned from Spain is the most depressing and the one most likely to be assimilated by the terrorist networks the world over: in a Western democracy, terrorism, if massive enough, pays."[4]  

WMDs on Main Street

The enemy could hit us with chemical or biological weapons. Recall that the 2001 anthrax blitz essentially shut down America’s capital for a month. If the terrorists aren’t thinking it, Washington certainly is: Just last week, Bush activated Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion program that will stockpile millions of anthrax and smallpox vaccines. 

A dirty bomb could lay waste to one of our cities. Mohammed al-Baradei, who heads up the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned in June that the threat of a nuclear terror attack is “real and imminent.” With uranium and plutonium floating about, he openly worries about a dirty bomb attack.

Soft Targets

A hospital or other unsuspecting, unprotected civilian facility would be a prime target. Chechen terrorists have perfected this especially ugly brand of terror attacks across Russia: In June, they attacked a regional headquarters of the Russian Interior Ministry, killing scores of civilians. In 2002, they seized a theater. In 1995, they took over a hospital, killing a hundred people. 

The enemy could hit synagogues (as he has in Israel and Turkey) or churches (as he did in Pakistan), or both. Or he could surprise us with something altogether new and unexpected (as he did on September 11): rampaging through a high school, suicide-bombing a mega-mall, laying siege to a college campus, poisoning a water treatment plant, or plowing an airliner into a nuclear power facility would leave indelible scars on our country. 

The mind can wander into some very dark places when trying to outguess this enemy. But don’t think that putting these threats in print (or pixels) gives the enemy new ideas. He has already contemplated much worse. The only thing that constrains him is America’s global counteroffensive, which is still less than three years old. And the only thing that constrains us is us. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, al-Qaeda’s success on September 11 was the result of a “failure of imagination” on our part. Let us never be guilty of that again.


[1]See Con Coughlin, “Saddam’s WMD hidden in Syria, says Iraq survey chief,” The London Telegraph, Jan. 25, 2004; David Kay, Report to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, October 2, 2003; Douglas Jehl, “Official suggests Iraq hid weapons in Syria,” International Herald Tribune, 10-29-03.

[2]William Kristol, “About Those Iraqi Weapons . . .” Weekly Standard,May 31, 2004.

[3]DoD press conference, June 30, 2004.

[4]Michael Radu, “THE NEWS FROM SPAIN: TERROR WORKS,” FRPI.org, March 16, 2004.